The Virtual and the Vital: Bergson's Philosophy of Biology

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Posteraro, Tano
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 04, 2019
Committee Members:
  • Leonard Richard Lawlor, Dissertation Advisor
  • Leonard Richard Lawlor, Committee Chair
  • Emily Rolfe Grosholz, Committee Member
  • Ted Toadvine, Committee Member
  • Claire Mary Colebrook, Outside Member
  • Bergson
  • Virtual
  • Philosophy of Evolution
  • Deleuze
  • Time
  • Tendency
  • Novelty
  • Vitalism
Bergson was an early and important critic of Darwinism. Today it is not uncommon to hear that recent innovations in the study of conservation, development, and symbiosis have begun to destabilize some of the tenets of the Darwinian view of evolution. This dissertation undertakes to renew Bergson’s philosophy of life by updating both its critical and creative facets in tandem with developments in the life sciences of today. I argue that Bergson’s attack on the mechanistic biology of his era continues to track the recent consolidation of gene-centric understandings of life (in Dennett and Dawkins, for instance), while his positive account of evolutionary creativity can be read productively alongside thermodynamic and developmental systems approaches to evolution. The dissertation develops a new reading of Bergson’s infamous “vitalist” principle, the élan vital, by reconceiving it as a virtual tendency instead of an actual force or spiritual principle. I show how this tendency can be used to account for the lived time of organic systems, as well as to respond to certain debates in, for instance, the levels of organization understanding of nature. The result is a Bergson for the biology of today.